Neon Nightz's Sasha Van Bon Bon on comedy, tragedy and the vulva
It’s safe to say that when Neon Nightz hits the Wildside Festival next week, it’ll be the first time strippers have ever graced the main stage at the Centaur. And they’ve got the moves! Neon Nightz, Sasha Van Bon Bon’s incisive and revelatory cabaret show about sex and salvation in Montreal strip clubs in the 1990s, is smart on the topic of what makes a saint and what makes a stripper. It’s a most naked and emotional autobiography told through a series of cabaret numbers narrated and performed by Sasha (also a long-time newspaper sex columnist and owner-operator of the acclaimed Toronto burlesque troupe The Scandelles) and the inimitable Kitty Neptune, a feature dancer, who has a way with a Budweiser bikini, a set of prosthetic tits, a Tweety Bird blanket and other props and moves straight out of Montreal’s stripper heyday.
Hour I’ve seen Neon Nightz twice and it is pants-peeingly hilarious and then veers into the completely tragic and back again. How are comedy and tragedy linked in it, and how does sex fit into the picture? Do you worry about being too funny and so not sad enough, or making people too sad to laugh, or the tension between the extremes?
Sasha Van Bon Bon I haven’t been in professional theatre for very long, but one thing that’s hard to miss even as a greenhorn is its ubiquitous emblem: the laughing mask and the crying mask. Perhaps it’s my lack of formal training that made me address this concept so literally in my own work. Or maybe it’s the fact that any theatre training I did get was in a strip club where emotions and scenes weren’t honed by a dramaturge – Molson Triple X is a rowdy director.
This whole sex, comedy and tragedy trifecta is something that people remark on in our shows frequently… I’ve always hated that the term "gratuitous nudity" is used disparagingly. I believe we are all versatile enough to sit through a play that features a good look at a woman’s vulva, a groaningly bad vaudevillian joke and a deeply sad exchange about mid-life virginity. We are complex; we can handle this shit.
Hour Not to give too much away, but as the playwright and the protagonist, you’ve written in a DJ character who interrogates and challenges what you recall about yourself and your years as a stripper (while also performing amazing live vocal/keyboard covers of G ‘n’ R’s Sweet Child o’ Mine and The Afghan Whigs’ Be Sweet). How honest does she make you? Or are there still other layers of the experience waiting to be flayed away? If so, is that the next play?
SVBB We have rewritten parts of that exchange so that the truth comes out without it being so inquisitional. For me, the addition of that character, Sister DJ, was to keep me honest. As an incurable show-off, I was finding the temptation to be slick and paint myself in too "cool" a light, satisfying the side of me that craves the positive spotlight – but in the end [this glibness] was dissatisfying and did a huge disservice to the play and the world it brings [the audience] into. That said, it is a play based on my experiences as a sex worker, and when you tell a story about a job that’s about acting, honesty becomes a very hairy concept.
Hour Does the play change when put up in a polished, mainstream venue like Centaur’s main stage, or does it stay the same? How?
SVBB We have been talking a lot about this. How do we maintain the grubby intimacy we, as cabaret theatre artists, require to make that vital connection with the audience? I look forward to the challenge. As long as I can hop off stage and have direct exchanges with people, as long as Kitty can do the same in some of her stripper characters, as long as we all feel in on it together, then we’ll be able to pull it off. (Oh Lord, no pun intended.) And now that we have our 16-foot poles, you will be able to watch Kitty Neptune pole dance in her fullest capacity.
Hour What’s the hardest manoeuvre, stripper-athletics-wise, in the play? How does the play compare to the real athletics your body remembers as a stripper? Or are the play and your body memories identical?
SVBB This is a question for Kitty but I do know she struggles with this one move where she has to swing herself upside down into the splits. I think that they are all quite challenging but she is a perfectionist and a great athletic actress and she just nails them. I was never this athletic as a stripper – very few girls were. But one thing that was really important to me was to yoink the current pole-dancing trend away from its prudish fitness instructors and place it firmly back into the hands of the women who instigated it, Bud bikinis, beavers and all.
Neon Nightz: Sex & Salvation in ’90s Montreal
At Centaur Theatre (453 St-François-Xavier), Jan. 12-16